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How to build great cofounders' relationships starting from yourself

From the left: .Cocoon COO Hristo, .Cocoon Ventures founding partner Aleksander and .Cocoon CEO Ansis building an ad-hoc bridge together

A great relationship between the cofounders' ensures personal wellbeing and higher odds of success. When the relationship is poor, that can scare away potential investors, demotivate the team, inhibit creativity and execution and lead the company to its downfall.

When founders' relationships are not going well

Some of the symptoms that the relationship between the cofounders is not going well:

  • You get irritated because of how the other acts, talks, sometimes even about how the other IS or breathes;

  • You misunderstand each other often;

  • You feel more like bickering than collaborating;

  • You find it hard to confront the other constructively; instead, you are passively aggressive or lashing out.

Who's responsible

I will discuss the causes of the relationship problems from a specific stance regarding responsibility. When we look at who's responsible for what's happening with your life, there can be 3 options - others, you, both. Next question - who's responsible for taking care of your life - others, you, both.

Let's adopt the stance that you are responsible for what's happening in your life, and you are responsible for taking care of your life because

  1. If you want to change your life, you will benefit from starting with changing yourself because that is at least in your control, while changing others might not be so.

  2. Major things that you don't like about your life are the symptoms of your personal challenges, and to resolve those, you need to work on changing yourself. It is one of the core tenets of our approach at Cocoon (read more about it here).

Inner causes of founders' relationships problems

The potential causes of founders' relationships problems fall into two groups - inner and interpersonal. Here I will focus on the inner causes and keep the interpersonal group for another essay.

I consider that inner causes of relationship problems originate from splits in the Self. Certain parts of the Self are split off, disowned and repressed. This repressed part is often called the shadow. I am not asserting that this is the only cause, there can be other inner reasons, but I will mainly look at the shadow formation and impact in this essay.

On shadow formation, Gershen Kaufman, PhD in "Shame, the power of caring", writes about the impact of internalization and shame.


Humans identify with other humans and then internalize (take in as a part of themselves) the identified-with person. The main role models for identification are parents or other early childhood primary caretakers. Yet, the identification can also happen at later periods of life. Close identification results in internalization - the way of being of the other starts to live inside us. We begin to act, speak and even think like the identification model. Initially, the internalized image is conscious - we are aware of it. Still, with time it sinks deep in the subconscious, and we are not anymore aware of it.

All good if the model person was benevolent towards us. Yet if it was hostile, contemptuous, blaming, shaming, perfectionist, etc. - then this is what we have internalized, and that has become part of our Self. Then we get an internal voice that is hostile, shaming, blaming. As this internalized harsh voice is mainly in the subconscious, we do not know it well as our own, and we do not feel we own it. What's worse, this internalized voice is at war with some other parts of our Self - forever shaming, blaming and bickering inside.

At times of intense distress, this voice becomes unbearable, and then the solution we unconsciously apply is to project this voice onto other people. Then we can (unconsciously) persuade ourselves that this other is evil and stupid a****le, and this is why the voice we hear from the other is such and such. While in fact, it's our own internalized hostility mirrored back to us. The other says, "maybe grey", we hear him yelling, "definitely black".

Human expressions linked with shame

Those are formed when we encounter shame simultaneously with or because of specific experiences.

For example, a small boy gets hurt and starts to cry, to which his father reacts by yelling, "stop acting like a needy girl, boys don't cry". For the boy, this creates a link between sadness and shame - to be sad is to be ashamed of. Therefore, in future, situations that involve sadness will trigger shame. Which, in turn, will trigger defences to guard against the shame.

The human expressions that can become clotted with shame are of 3 groups:

  • emotions (in theoretical literature also called affects which additionally include moods and feelings, but here for our discussion, I will interchangeably also use the lighter term emotions),

  • drives and

  • needs.

You will benefit by understanding this concept of how shame is linked to emotions, drives and needs, and how it enforces the repression of certain aspects of your Self.

Emotions. The above-mentioned example about the boy shows how a particular emotion can become clotted with shame. If you know or others point to you that you are not comfortable showing certain emotions, this could be your case. You could reflect, how free do you feel to express those to other people?

  • Positive: Excitement, Joy;

  • Resetting: Surprise;

  • Negative: Distress (sadness), Fear, Anger, Dissmell, Disgust.

Drives. The sexual drive can be a source of shame due to upbringing and past experiences. How can it be related to founders' relationships? Our expectations towards handling sexual impulses in general, particularly towards the opposite gender cofounders, can impact the relationship. Even more in the case of the same gender cofounders in the presence of repressed homosexuality, underdeveloped, uncertain gender identity. It could also be so that in some cases, one is hating his cofounder because one loves him.

Needs. Some of the human needs that can be bound with shame, according to Kaufman, are

  • The need for a real relationship. For example, if one of the parents ignored you as a child or perceived you as a thing rather than a decent human, then the need for a real relationship can become a source of shame for you, which, in turn, will trigger your shame and then defences whenever a relationship is becoming more intimate;

  • The need to identify with close role models. For example, suppose your mother despised your father, it could have inhibited your ability to identify with the father and linked the identification with shame.

  • The need to individuate and differentiate, to grow into an independent, life-smart and unique individual. Suppose you as a child were shamed or blamed for not following your parents' dreams or for wanting to have an independent life on your own. In that case, this inhibits your individuation and people with strong, unique identities can trigger your shame and defences.

  • The need to nurture others. There's a place in the movie "Alice through the looking glass" where the small boy Hatter makes a present for his father, but the father looks at it with ridicule and throws it in the bin. Similar events inevitably clog the need to nurture with shame, and one becomes an individual who becomes defensive when the need to nurture is called upon or perceived in others.

  • The need to be valued as one is. An example - parents punish an extrovert girl for being too loud and expressive. This eventually makes such a girl shy and ashamed of being outgoing. In her adult years, she gets triggered and defensive when others are expressive around her.

You can't hide from yourself

The situations mentioned above can involve painful neglect, violation of boundaries or unmet needs. The earlier in the childhood those happen, the more they remain unprocessed, become enveloped in a layer of shame and repressed. The emotion of shame protects from feeling the pain of the actual event. But the shame also is unbearable for most people.

When our human expressions become linked with shame, we repress those expressions also not to feel the shame attached to them.

When we are triggered into feeling, wanting or expressing those repressed parts, or perceive such expressions (including glimpses of shame) in other people, we simultaneously start to feel our own shame, therefore, immediately unconsciously use defence to avoid feeling the pain.

All that is hidden and repressed is still present, yet not acknowledged and accepted by the Self. Those parts do not disappear, instead, they seek their way out through projections and mirrors.

  • The parts of the Self that are hostile to us, we project onto others. An internalized shaming mother or an aggressive father's image will be projected on other people. Then a seemingly innocent phrase by the other can trigger defences in immense intensity in us.

  • The aspects of the Self linked with shame are hidden from our conscious, but we notice them reflected in others, which triggers our defences. If we merely perceive something in the other, that's one thing. But if we perceive and get defensive by it - it hints that we face a mirror of our repressed parts of Self.

Defences are clues

Defences are the evidence that it's not about the other but ourselves. We learn our defences from our primary caregivers, so study your parents or other early role models to get to know your defences.

Those could be

  • irritation or even rage (attack to defend),

  • domination and control (create a setup where others can't attack),

  • perfectionism (hoping to erase all potential reasons for getting shamed),

  • blaming and shaming the other (transfer of inherent shame),

  • weakling or martyr stance mentally and/or physically (look how miserable I am, don't make my life even worse),

  • and the list goes on.

Timewise, the transfer of blame is used as a reaction after a shaming event. The other defences are mainly used to prevent potential future events. This small detail can be helpful when reflecting on your defences used.

Don't shoot the messenger

Possibly your cofounder is serving you as a messenger about parts of your Self that you have been neglecting and despising for a long time. Perhaps, you can also start to feel grateful for him/her mirroring you some truths about yourself.

The main takeaway - if your relationship does not feel good now, it is not a doomed mission - there is a hope of reconciliation and improvement if you can see how deeper personal forces are at play.

By knowing this about yourself, you can also accept that the other is potentially struggling with similar challenges, and you are a mirror for the other's painful and shameful parts of the Self.

The resolution entails honesty, courage and work

Now it could be more apparent why I started with proposing a full responsibility stance - only you can work for the change to accept yourself. No one else can do it for you.

For that to start happening, I recommend the following:

  1. With total honesty and courage, start working with Mirror exercise regularly. To explain the Mirror exercise (and a few other tools for founders relationships), we are organizing workshops. (I plan to write a separate essay about it, which I will link then here, once published).

  2. Recapitulate your past to gain more clarity about the true nature of the events in your life. With this, I am not suggesting to live in the past; quite the contrary, I'm proposing to explore the past to be free to live in the present. In contrast, the unexplored past keeps running our today from behind the scenes. For recapitulation, you can use the formal method which we teach our clients at Cocoon, you can work on your own with simpler journaling and reflective discussions with your trustee(s). Also, you can use the support of psychotherapy.

  3. Seek a close relationship with one or a few people who can support you also by being a benevolent role model. Through this, expect at least two good outcomes - identifying with and internalizing a new, positive way of being; and a healthy perspective on your life challenges. Seek someone who has been able to recapitulate his own life and done shadow work to some extent as one can guide you as far as he has gone himself. A business advisor can guide you in business matters, while a self-discovery mentor who walks the talk - in discovering more truth about yourself.

  4. None of this will work if you will not step out of the victim mindset into taking full responsibility for your life. Start by reading this article about the victim triangle concept.

  5. Become more aware of your defences and when they get triggered. You can achieve this by asking others to point out to you immediately when you become defensive and reflecting on yourself when feeling intense emotions.

  6. Get to know and communicate with the parts of your Self which you are not yet familiar with. Three suitable methods are active imagination, dream analysis and journaling. About the first two, I suggest reading the book "Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth" by Dr Robert Johnson.

  7. Practice in building a stronger affirming inner voice. The tone and content of self-talk are essential. To say "I'm good and happy" when you don't feel so might not be the solution. But to consciously acknowledge and appreciate your effort is a good practice. Practical: every day, write 3 things that you are grateful to yourself and give yourself praise regarding your previous day's effort.

  8. Integrating the shadow is also the task of uniting what initially might seem hopeless opposites. It is the journey from "this or that" to "this and that". Therefore the technique of contemplatively drawing and colouring mandorlas, when feeling torn apart, can work well. Mandorla is not a mistype, it is different from mandala, as this illustration shows.

Keep in mind that behind the shame, once you are able to access it without defences, lies pain. For some, excruciating pain. Be ready to face it, this time for real - what was once (mostly in childhood) unbearable and repressed now needs to be let out and lived through. Feel whatever comes and cry. Scream. Cry. To do it is good - it is the very healing you seek. To do it in the presence of someone you trust is even better.

"Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy". Some misinterpret this verse from Psalm 126 as advocating suffering, but it is about healing through facing what's been hidden for long.

Pain can be inevitable, but suffering is a choice. Choose wholeness.

Afterword. Impact on doing purposeful work

Someone who has repressed a great deal of himself, whose identity, feelings and needs are restrained with shame, will also find it harder to feel what his heart desires, including his purpose as a human and an entrepreneur. Thus shadow work also frees oneself to connect with the heart and connect with his sense of purpose.

Read more on purpose for entrepreneurs in this essay.


Author: Ansis Farhad Lipenitis

Ansis is the CEO of .Cocoon that supports founders' self-discovery for personal and business growth through mentoring and investing.

When there is a challenge at the business level – we support our clients

1. To find the link between the business challenge and their personalities and personal challenges;

2. And to bring forth personal changes that, as a result, create changes in the business.

If you are a founder or a business leader - let's talk!

.Cocoon is part of .Contriber One - a group of companies that supports self-discovery for businesses, individuals and children.

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